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5 ways to back up your files

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Digital files live on physical devices. When those devices get lost, stolen, or hacked, you can lose all your data unless you’ve created backups on the cloud or another device.

Data loss is surprisingly common, and sometimes it’s painful — you can lose your photos, important documents, journals, and other irreplaceable items.

Fortunately it’s extremely simple to back up your data. We’ll recommend five methods you could choose depending on your needs. In each case, we’ll recommend options that protect your privacy and security. You don’t want to back up your data only to have it lost in a data breach or scanned by Big Tech for profit. 

We’ll cover the following:

What is a file backup?
File backup or full device backup?
1. Cloud backup
2. External hard drive
3. Built-in backup programs
4. Automated backup software
5. Disk imaging
How to back up files securely

What is a file backup?

Backing up files is essentially making copies of the items on your computer or mobile device, such as documents, photos, music, and anything else you want to save. This helps preserve your files in case something unexpected happens, like accidentally deleting them, your computer breaking, or your data getting caught up in a ransomware attack(new window) (it can happen). The whole point of backing up files is to have a way to get back your information if something goes wrong with the original data.

Some experts recommend creating three copies of your data on at least two different media, including one in a different location (the 3-2-1 method). This might be overkill for most people, but the point is that if you would be devastated to lose the files, then you should prepare for the worst.

File backup or full device backup?

Before we get into the different backup methods, it’s useful to understand whether you’re looking to back up specific files or if you need to back up your entire device.

  • File backup is making copies of specific items on your device. You may only feel you need to save a few folders containing special photos or documents. There are simple services, like cloud storage(new window), that can handle this type of backup.
  • Full device backup is when you take a snapshot of your entire computer, copying everything from files to settings to applications. This is useful if you want to fully restore your entire system exactly as it was.

How to back up data

No matter how you back up your files, you’ll usually need to pick up some extra software or hardware to store it on. The method you choose depends on your use case.

1. Cloud backup

What is it

Cloud backup is when you use remote servers to store and manage data copies. Essentially, it’s a distributed storage solution accessible over the internet. You can choose from dozens of cloud storage services, but most of the popular ones aren’t private. Google Drive, Dropbox, and iCloud all have access to your data, which can compromise your privacy and lead to data breaches. It’s important to choose a cloud storage service that uses end-to-end encryption(new window), which locks your files with your own secret key so nobody can access them but you.

When to use it

Cloud backup is great for backing up specific files or folders so that they’re accessible from anywhere, on any device. Once you back up the files, you can manage and download them by logging in to your cloud storage account anywhere. This also makes it ideal for collaboration with colleagues or file sharing(new window).

You can also use cloud storage for full device backup, but most services aren’t designed to  create automatic backups of your whole hard drive. So you would have to do it manually, and it could also get pricey.

How to back up to the cloud

Select a trustworthy cloud storage provider(new window) and sign up for an account. From there, you can upload files directly or use automatic file syncing(new window).

2. External hard drive

What is it

An external hard drive is an additional, portable storage device that connects to a computer via USB or other interfaces. It’s an extra storage device that you can plug in whenever you want to save a copy of your files.

When to use it

This method is beneficial when you prefer physical control over your backups or need quick offline access. It’s suitable for large files and comprehensive backups.

How to back up to an external hard drive

Connect the external drive to your computer, and then manually copy or use backup software to transfer your selected files. Note that anyone will have access to the files unless you encrypt them. We’ve published a guide to encrypt external hard drives(new window) so you can store your files safely.

3. Built-in backup programs

What is it

Built-in backup programs are integral features embedded within operating systems, designed to automate and streamline the backup process.

Windows and Mac both have built-in backup software. Time Machine for macOS and File History for Windows back up files to an external storage device. Meanwhile, iCloud and Windows Backup let you save files to Apple’s iCloud and Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage platforms.

When to use it

You might choose built-in backup programs for making consistent, automated backups. But these services have limitations. For example, File History only lets you back up files saved in specific folders, such as Documents or Music. And iCloud and OneDrive are not end-to-end encrypted by default.

How to back up files with Time Machine or File History

Depending on your device, you can follow these guides:

4. Automated backup software

What is it

Automated backup software refers to third-party applications that back up your files to the cloud on a defined schedule. Typically people use backup software to make a copy of their entire hard drive.

When to use it

This kind of software is great when you want to back up your entire device and have a recent copy available at all times. This is a preferred option if you save lots of important data, such as for your small business.

How to back up to automated backup software

Select a reputable backup software solution, create an account, and then configure the backup frequency and the files you want it to copy and save. You might need to give the software certain disk access permissions in your device settings.

5. Disk imaging

What is it

Disk imaging is a comprehensive backup technique that replicates your entire storage device, including operating systems, applications, and data.

When to use it

Use disk imaging when you want a total backup of everything on your computer for full-system recovery or need to set up multiple computers to be exactly alike. Most people won’t need this for their personal computers.

How to create a disk image

Pick a disk imaging tool, such as Acronis True Image or Macrium Reflect. Then follow the software’s instructions to create a disk image, which is typically stored on an external drive, though many services also offer cloud backup options.

How to back up files securely

The obvious challenge of backing up your files is that you’re creating more ways for hackers and Big Tech companies to access your data. Files stored locally on your computer or phone aren’t going anywhere as long as your device is secure. But the more copies you make externally, the larger your attack surface. 

With external storage devices, it’s easy to encrypt the data as previously mentioned. With cloud storage, it’s also easy — as long as you choose a service that uses end-to-end encryption by default.

We created Proton Drive to give people a secure and private alternative to Big Tech cloud storage providers that can scan your files and sometimes make money off your data. Platforms like Google Drive, OneDrive, and Dropbox don’t use end-to-end encryption, and iCloud isn’t end-to-end encrypted by default(new window) for many categories of data.

How is Proton Drive different? 

Proton Drive encrypts your files on your device using your own encryption key before uploading them to our secure servers located in Switzerland and Germany, countries with strong privacy protections. From there, nobody can access your files but you, using your own secret key pair. Learn more about Proton Drive security.(new window)

Of course, if you want to share your files with friends or colleagues, you can grant access with a file-sharing link. Proton Drive lets you send files of any size(new window) while preserving end-to-end encryption.

Proton Drive also lets you back up photos on your Android device(new window) automatically. This feature is coming to our iPhone app soon.
It’s free to get started backing up your files in Proton Drive. Sign up for an account here.

Protect your privacy with Proton
Create a free account

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Ben Wolford(new window)

Ben Wolford is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in major newspapers and magazines around the world. Ben joined Proton in 2018 to help to explain technical concepts in privacy and make Proton products easy to use.

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